How to avoid trouble when docking

Capt. Katherine Redmond


Try, try again

If you start the docking process wrong, begin again. Many boaters feel embarrassed to back off an improperly aligned docking attempt, so they stay with it, vrooming forward, shrieking into reverse, banging into this, dinging that, haplessly attempting to correct the uncorrectable.

It’s much easier—and more professional—to abort the ill-fated maneuver and start over.

Watch your speed

Never speed up and try to steer out of hitting something. In more than 20 years of docking, the only accident I was involved in occurred when I didn’t follow this rule. I thought I could clear the other boat if I increased my speed, but I was wrong. While it may seem appropriate at times to gun the throttle to avoid a collision, statistics prove otherwise. Too often, speeding up to avoid banging into something creates serious damage; it’s much better to slow down and gently glide into contact with the object.

Power through

A surge of power occurs when we go from neutral to forward or reverse. This power surge is useful in boosting response for all boats, but it’s vital for single-engine inboards, including sailboats. When a sharp turn is required to enter a slip, this surge of power provides the additional force needed. For example, imagine a boat heading down an aisle to enter a slip on the starboard side. The helmsperson puts the boat into forward gear and moves down the aisle. As he reaches the turning point to enter the slip, he turns the wheel to the right. The boat turns to starboard, but the turn isn’t sharp enough. He misses the slip entry by a few feet and winds up in trouble. Now he has to back off, attempt to turn around for a second try or reverse and hope he doesn’t bump into other vessels in the area.

Instead, let’s rewind and alter the approach. A vessel is heading down an aisle to enter a slip on the starboard side. The helmsperson puts the boat into forward gear and back into neutral, allowing momentum to move the boat. As she reaches the turning point to enter the slip, she turns the wheel to the right and begins moving the gear shift rather quickly between neutral and forward, neutral, forward, neutral, forward, using the additional power to sharpen the turn. She enters the slip and ties up her lines.

Face the wind

Whenever the opportunity exists, you should face the bow of the boat into the wind during the docking process. Even in very light winds, docking is simplified if the bow faces into the wind. The bow, with its narrow shape, reduces the wind’s ability to push it out of control.

Conversely, the wind may alter the boat’s position when it comes from the stern and will impact the vessel even more dramatically when it comes from the sides.

The most trouble I’ve had while docking has been when the wind comes from my port or starboard side. I recall one particularly precarious docking experience. I was backing the boat stern in, and the alignment was perfect. The last few feet before the stern entered the slip, a gust of wind pushed the bow in the opposite direction. Only a full-throttle maneuver saved the day.

Turn first, power second

When you change the direction of your boat, always turn the wheel first and then add power. During your skill drill training, compare the difference in the boat’s response from turning the wheel first and then adding power to powering first and then turning the wheel. You’ll be quite surprised at the substantial difference in response, which can be helpful during docking.

Mind the slip

The slip assigned to you can have a dramatic impact on your success or failure during docking. Slips aren’t equal! Waterside Marina in Norfolk, Virginia, comes to mind. Wonderfully located with stores to peruse, the marina had many slips that were difficult to dock at back in 1995. Sterns and bows seemed to stick out every which way in the crowded marina, which reminded me of an obstacle course. Caution was strongly recommended. It wasn’t a place for a newbie. Marinas may have available slips with varying degrees of difficulty, so if you are inexperienced at docking, it would be wise to alert the marina personnel when requesting a slip.

Capt. Katherine Giampietro Redmond of Palm Beach Sail & Power Squadron/8 is a NASBLA-honored boating safety instructor with a Six-Pack Towing Captain’s License. Author of “The Chartracker Navigation Guides” and “7 Steps to Successful Boat Docking,” she created to provide boating guidance for women.